TOPSHAM, Maine — In a charmless, windowless building where military vets once shopped for groceries, a warm batch of organic Honduran coffee beans shoot from a roaster.
Overhead, skylights and LED lights illuminate workers packing boxes of coffee to be shipped Down East, down south and across the country into the nation’s heartland. The beans, sourced from Central America, are roasted on energy-efficient machines that spew scant emissions.
“It won’t help the coffee taste any better,” Bob Garver, owner of Wicked Joe Coffee Roasting Co., admitted. “[But] it’s the right thing to do.”
In July, the 10-year-old company moved its headquarters from a cramped space in Brunswick to a commissary-turned-leading-edge coffee roasting facility across the Androscoggin River. Located near a defunct recruitment center and shuttered fire station in the former U.S. Navy Annex in Topsham, it is an unlikely location for a rising coffee bean business. But the blank slate — a 37,000-square-foot building — was ripe for renewal.
With a wall of solar panels outside and inside a sleek cupping lab and training room lined with the latest brewing equipment and eco-friendly roasters beyond, this is not your average beanery.
“I’m always asking myself, ‘How can we do better?’” said Garver, who also owns Bard Coffee in Portland and Benbows Coffee Roaster in Bar Harbor, both of which are roasted here.
A commitment to energy efficiency matches the 52-year-old’s zest for the perfect cup.
Garver worked with a team of professionals — including Michael Mayhew of Boothbay Harbor’s Heliotropic Technologies, who built the solar wall, and energy advisors Fred Horch and Pat Coon — to help make the roastery of his dreams. Outside, there is an electric company car plugged into a fueling station, which townspeople can use. A giant solar panel adorns the facade to heat the space in the winter. A solar photovoltaic array over their entrance generates electricity.
His Loring roasters have a smaller carbon footprint, using 80 percent less fossil fuels and emitting 80 percent less emissions than traditional drum roasters. A new model costs around $200,000.
“You have to make a commitment,” said Garver, who started roasting coffee with his wife, Carmen, in 1992 in Santa Cruz, California.
“It took a long time to move into these roasters. We had to save our money in the beginning.”
But, as in any industry, if you don’t adjust to change you die.
“As different technologies have come in, we’ve tried to adapt,” he said. “Everything we are doing, we are asking ourselves, ‘Is this going to create great coffee for our customers?’”
So far, so good.
The organic coffee roasting company has 15 employees and 1,000 wholesale accounts — a growing number. They roast 500,000 to 750,000 pounds of coffee yearly, so the savings are important.
“We are not an energy company; we are coffee people. We come in every day and taste coffee and sample roasts,” said Garver, who purchased a pair of Lorings because they “roast amazing coffee.”
As the consumer quest for better-tasting and mindfully sourced coffee accelerates, they have experienced double-digit growth, year after year. Besides Maine, Wicked Joe is sold in Chicago, Illinois, and throughout upstate New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Tennessee and Georgia.
“You name it,” Garver said.
Armed with $1.5 million in loans and a $270,000 Community Development Block Grant, they set out to roast coffee using sustainable practices and create a facility to match the company’s ethos. Their new space, which the Garvers purchased from JHR Development a month ago, prepares them for even more growth.
On the day of a recent visit, a large order of 24 pallets of coffee awaited shipment to midwest supermarket chain Jewel-Osco, a new account for Wicked Joe.
“You’ve come at a good time,” said the robust Garver, whose team worked overtime to prepare their largest order to date. “It’s such a big event for us.”
It’s been a season of big events for Topsham’s newest company.
The loquacious entrepreneur is also an Army veteran. And that attracted the U.S. Small Business Administration, who visited Wicked Joe’s new headquarters in August to salute them.
Seth Goodall, the SBA regional administrator was impressed by Garver’s commitment to the environment, which “goes beyond the bottom line of energy consumption with on-site electric cars.”
The SBA helped the business secure the $1.5 million loan for growth and renovation.
“We see time and again veteran entrepreneurs giving back to the community,” Goodall said.
With numerous small coffee roasters launching across the state and medium-sized outfits like Wicked Joe and Coffee By Design leading the pack, the burgeoning industry is starting to align with craft beer.
“Not only are they making superior products, more importantly they are great jobs,” Goodall said. “Wicked Joe is strong and growing, and we are happy to be able to assist with that.”
The accolades are percolating now, but going green was far from easy.
Years ago, when Garver contacted the state to find out how he could practice sustainability, he was told to contact Bath Iron Works or Bowdoin College. He was surprised “there was no roadmap” for small food producers. “That’s what Maine is made of,” he said.
Topsham’s economic director, John Shattuck, believes Wicked Joe’s sustainable footprint will radiate outward.
“It is positive to see a working, commercial model of new technologies in your community,” Shattuck said. “It sends a message to others that this is feasible and viable.”
The company’s investment, which breathes new life into an old relic, is a visible sign of Topsham’s growing business sector. Located near two schools, they plan to educate future generations on best practices.
“It’s always a win when you have something iconic that had real meaning for the community get repurposed,” Shattuck said. “We are not out of the woods on the economy, but they are saving money by not knocking it down and starting over.”
Sitting down over a cup of Panama Kotowa Duncan, which debuted at Bard this week, it’s clear this company shares more than a love of crema.
Marketing director Kari Guddeck, who expertly brews coffee on a Chemex system for guests, calls Wicked Joe “the everyday man’s cup of organic coffee. We are an approachable brand by a wide range of people.”
And that range grows daily.
The other impetus that propels them is the craft coffee movement, in which they are a rising star.
“The culture is driving the science to change and improve,” Garver said. “It’s an industry that embraces that. It is really fun to have a product that you can be passionate about. I don’t know if doily manufacturers feel that way.”